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Bankruptcy Can Write Off a Student Loan, IF it Causes Undue Hardship

March 18th, 2019 at 7:00 am

Writing off student loans is not easy. You must convincingly show that paying the loan causes you undue hardship, a tough condition to prove. 

 

 

Criminal fines and restitution and child and spousal support are types of debts that bankruptcy essentially never discharges. Income taxes can be discharged but only after meeting certain conditions. We’ve covered these in our last few blog posts. Today we cover student loans.

Student loans are more like income taxes than criminal or support debts in that they CAN get discharged in bankruptcy. Like an income tax, a student loan just needs to meet certain conditions.

But unlike an income tax debt, the conditions for discharge of a student loan are much vaguer. Most of the income tax conditions are clear. These conditions require a precise understanding of the law and a thorough knowledge of the facts of your case. But if you and your bankruptcy lawyer are careful, you should know before you file your bankruptcy whether you can discharge a tax debt.

Discharging student loans, in contrast, require meeting an ambiguous condition called “undue hardship.” Its ambiguity means that it’s much harder to predict whether or not a student loan will be discharged in bankruptcy.

Furthermore, because of this vague condition it’s possible to get a partial discharge. You may continue to owe some but not all of a particular student loan debt. Or if you have multiple student loans you may discharge some but not all of them.

“Undue Hardship”

Bankruptcy law states that an educational loan or benefit overpayment is not discharged in bankruptcy unless it “would impose an undue hardship on [you or your] dependents.” Section 523(a)(8) of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code.

Can you show the bankruptcy court that paying a student loan causes you “undue hardship”? If so bankruptcy can forever discharge that debt.

A More Precise Meaning of “Undue Hardship”

How does your bankruptcy court decide whether or not a student loan causes you a hardship?  

How bad does a hardship need to be to qualify as an undue hardship?

In most parts of the country “undue hardship” requires you to establish all three of the following:

1. You currently cannot maintain even a minimal standard of living (for yourself and any dependents) if you pay the student loan.

2. This present financial situation is realistically anticipated to continue through the loan’s term of repayment.

3. You have acted responsibly in the past regarding the student loan, by making a serious effort to pay it and/or to attempt to qualify for any of the available programs to reduce or manage the loan.  

The Student Loan Survives Unless You Establish “Undue Hardship”

It can be difficult to meet all three of these. If you don’t, you continue to owe the student loan.

Furthermore, the student loan creditor does not have to take any action itself. You and your lawyer have to raise the issue yourself. It’s up to you to start the ball rolling.

Generally you do so by filing an “adversary proceeding” during your bankruptcy case. This is a legal proceeding focusing exclusively on whether you qualify for a “hardship discharge” of the student loan.

If you believe you qualify, you could file a Chapter 7 “straight bankruptcy” case. Then your lawyer would file an adversary proceeding during the 3-4 months a basic Chapter 7 case usually lasts.  The student loan creditor would most likely object. There would then be a trial with evidence on whether you meet the necessary factors to show undue hardship. There’s no jury—the bankruptcy judge decides.

You can do the same thing within a Chapter 13 “adjustment of debts.” Because this kind of bankruptcy usually lasts 3 to 5 years, it gives you more timing options. Chapter 13 would usually allow you to avoid making student loan payments at least temporarily. Then once you think you qualify for undue hardship your lawyer would file the adversary proceeding. This could be especially helpful if you have a deteriorating medical condition or an anticipated reduction in income.

Summary

Student loans are dischargeable in bankruptcy, but undue hardship is an ambiguous and often tough condition to prove. The law of undue hardship as interpreted by the courts is constantly adjusting, and can be slightly different in different bankruptcy courts. So it’s crucial to get highly competent legal advice about what’s best for you.

 

The Surprising Benefits: Deal with Student Loan Collection with Chapter 13

July 9th, 2018 at 7:00 am

Qualifying for “undue hardship” to discharge (write off) student loans is not easy. But Chapter 13 gives you powerful help over the timing.

 

The Much Better Chapter 13 “Automatic Stay”  

Last time we explained how bankruptcy’s “automatic stay” immediately stops student loan collections against you. But if you file a Chapter 7 bankruptcy this protection from collections lasts only the 3-4 months that the case lasts. If you qualify under “undue hardship,” you could discharge (write off) your student loan debt during your case. Then the student loan creditor could no longer collect that debt.

But if you can’t show “undue hardship,” Chapter 13 buys you much more time, and more timing flexibility.

Chapter 13 Simply Buys More Time

Chapter 13 buys more time because a typical case lasts 3 to 5 years. The “automatic stay” prevents collection actions this entire length of time.  A student loan creditor could try to persuade your bankruptcy judge to allow it to collect before the end of your case.  But usually this doesn’t happen. So regardless of anything else, Chapter 13 puts off your student loan creditor(s) for a fairly long time.

Chapter 13 May Buy Time Until You DO Qualify for “Undue Hardship”

To discharge a student loan you (or your dependent) must be experiencing an “undue hardship” at that time.  Chapter 13 gives you the flexibility of waiting for up to 5 years until you meet that condition. You file the case, and throughout its life your student loan creditor(s) is (are) prevented from collecting. Then, as soon as you do qualify for “undue hardship,” your bankruptcy lawyer would file the discharge petition.

For example, assume you or a financial dependent had a worsening chronic medical condition. But that condition was NOT YET preventing you from working, so that you were not yet in the circumstances that your student loan(s) was (were) preventing you from maintaining even a minimal standard of living. You could not petition for “undue hardship” discharge yet. But Chapter 13 would allow you to wait as long as 5 years after filing the case. This would give you time for your condition to worsen until you did met this requirement.   

Conclusion

Chapter 13 prevents your student loan creditor(s) from chasing you for years. And it also allows you to delay asking to discharge your student loan debt(s) until the point when you’d qualify. In the right circumstances these could be huge advantages.

 

The Surprising Benefits: Stop Student Loan Collection

July 2nd, 2018 at 7:00 am

Chapter 7 “straight bankruptcy” stops student loan collection actions for a few months. Sometimes it can stop these actions permanently. 

 

Bankruptcy gives you tools to deal with special debts—including those you can’t easily write off. Last week we got into income taxes. Today we discuss student loans, focusing on this special kind of debt in Chapter 7 “straight bankruptcy.” Next week, we’ll cover student loans under Chapter 13 “adjustment of debts.”

Let’s assume you owe a student loan that you can’t afford to pay. Here’s how Chapter 7 can help.

Student Loan Collection

Student loan creditors and collectors have extraordinary collection powers. Often they don’t need to sue you first and get a legal judgment against you, as most creditors must. These creditors and their collections have very aggressive collection procedures available to them. Besides the usual garnishment of bank accounts and paychecks, these special creditors can often grab your tax refund or a portion of a Social Security benefit check.

The “Automatic Stay” from a Chapter 7 Filing 

Student loans are special in a number of ways. However, just like ordinary debts, student loan collections are immediately stopped by the “automatic stay” imposed by your bankruptcy filing. It doesn’t matter whether or not the student loan would be discharged (written off) in your Chapter 7 case.

The “automatic stay” stops “any act to collect, assess, or recover a claim against the debtor.”  (Section 362(a)(6) of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code.) (A “claim” is a “right to payment”—essentially, a debt. See Section 101(5).) More specifically, the “automatic stay” stops “the commencement or continuation…  of a[n]..  .   administrative…  proceeding against the debtor. (Section 362(a)(1).) “Administrative proceedings” include the non-judicial collection actions mentioned above that don’t include a lawsuit. The Chapter 7 filing also specifically stops “the setoff of any debt” owed to you, such as a tax refund or Social Security setoff. (Section 362(a)(7).)  So, filing bankruptcy stops all student loan collection actions.

This break from collections lasts throughout the 3-4 months that most consumer Chapter 7 cases take to finish. But unless you deal with the student loan appropriately in the meantime, after that its collection can continue.

Dischargeability of Student Loans

Bankruptcy permanently discharges some student loans. A dischargeable student loan must meet just one condition, albeit a tough and confusing condition. The student loan must cause you an “undue hardship.” As the Bankruptcy Code puts it, you can’t discharge a student loan unless that loan “would impose an undue hardship on the debtor and the debtor’s dependents.” (Section 523(a)(8).)

What does “undue hardship” mean? How much harder must it be than just a simple “hardship”?

You may feel like your student loans are causing you a great financial hardship. However, the federal courts have interpreted this phrase very narrowly.  The details are beyond the scope of today’s blog post, but just keep in mind this condition is challenging to meet.

During the Chapter 7 Break in Collections      

During the 3-4 months of your Chapter 7 case you want to take steps to make the temporary break in collections a permanent one. Here are three ways to accomplish this.

  • If you and your bankruptcy lawyer believe you meet the “undue hardship” condition, your bankruptcy lawyer would file an “adversary proceeding” during your Chapter 7 case. That’s a specialized lawsuit designed to determine whether you qualify for “undue hardship.” If you persuade the bankruptcy judge that you do, the student loan debt would be permanently discharged. Then the temporary break in collections would become permanent. There would be no more collection on a debt once you no longer legally owe it.
  • The bankruptcy judge may give you only a partial discharge of your student loan(s). In this situation the judge is determining that repaying all of the loan(s) would cause you an “undue hardship.” But paying back only a portion would not. So you’d make arrangements to pay the remaining student loan debt, probably at a reduced monthly payment. As long as you made the payments your student loan creditor would take no further collection action against you.
  • If you don’t qualify for a full or partial “undue hardship” discharge, your Chapter 7 case would still at least discharge all or most of your other debts. That should leave you better able to pay the remaining student loans. Hopefully you’d be in a position to make payment arrangements. This may be done through a payment-reduction program which are available for various student loans. If so, then your situation would hopefully be resolved by the end of your Chapter 7 case. Then, at the time that the automatic stay would expire you won’t be facing any more student loan collections.

Avoiding Default and Preserving Options

Even if you don’t qualify for “undue hardship,” the bankruptcy pause in collections can be extremely helpful. It could maybe even be critical. That’s because you can only qualify for most student loan workout programs before you are too far behind on payments. So filing a Chapter 7 case before you’ve fallen too far behind could allow you to take advantage of these programs. But if you waited too long you could lose out, and be seriously disadvantaged.

Conclusion

It’s really crucial to talk with an experienced bankruptcy lawyer about all this. Student loans are complicated and often very challenging to deal with. This is true both outside and inside bankruptcy. You need a lawyer on your side who deeply understands both bankruptcy law and student loans.

 

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210-342-3400

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